Sunday, November 17, 2019


I absolutely loved LE MANS 66 - a superbly made character drama centred around a beautiful friendship played out against the world of motor racing, where the "pure" fans are up against the soulless commercial users.  

The film stars Christian Bale as Ken Miles - a true pure racer. He's one of those people born with the talent to really understand a car and to be able to test it and improve it through sheer engineering knowhow and hard work.  He's also a totally unglamorous Brummie, with an inability to play the corporate game and bullshit people.  As much as I loved SENNA and all the glamour of racing, there's just something wonderful about seeing a guy who's not conventionally gorgeous or charismatic do just as well through sheer talent.  I didn't know I needed a hero who was a cheeky sweary Brummie constantly drinking a cup of tea.  But I did.  And it's just so delicious hearing his old-fashioned swearing - and his sheer joy when he races the perfect lap. God only knows what American viewers will make of Miles calling his son a "dirty stop out" or singing H-A-P-P-Y though.  And the scene where he comes off the track at Le Mans to be told his cup of tea is waiting and to hear him respond "thanks Chaz" is just a thing of brilliance!

Miles' friend and colleague is Carell Shelby, played with an almost Clintonesque drawl by Matt Damon.  He was at that point the other American to have ever won Le Mans, and when forced to retire for health reasons, he created a boutique sports car manufacturing company.  Shelby is everything Miles isn't - charismatic, able to schmooze corporates, but both share their true love of racing.  We never doubt that they truly love and respect each other, and that they bring out the best in each other. It's a pleasure to be in their company.

The conflict comes when the bankrupt Enzo Ferrari, the third pure racer in this film, refuses to sell his company to Ford because he knows they'll put commercial interests above racing.  So Henry Ford II, in a fit of pique, decides to create a racing team to beat Ferrari at Le Mans just to humiliate Enzo Ferrari. He doesn't actually give a shit about racing and neither does his oleaginous side-kick Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas).  In fact, they are so obtuse that when Ken Miles finally gets to Le Mans, and manages to get a wondrous four lap lead on the field, they actually ask him to slow down so that all the Ford cars can finish together! It's a truly humiliating thing to ask, and shows an utter disregard for Miles' achievement.  Bizarrely, it's the man who we think is going to be the villain of the piece at the start - Ferrari - who literally tips his hat to Miles, out of appreciation of his artistry.

This film succeeds because everything about it is just right.  The script - from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller and director James Mangold - is perfectly constructed and rooted in authentic relationships and emotions.  For sure, the racing scenes are exhilarating and beautifully recreated. You can almost smell the petrol coming off the screen. But all this would mean nothing if we didn't absolutely care about Miles and Shelby.  It's also not a film that allows us to have easy one-dimensional portraits. As I said, Ferrari starts off as a rude tricksy tyrant but ends as just a kid who loves cars and truly appreciates them. Henry Ford II - who for the most part is a corporate arsehole - has a moment of almost childlike wonder at a car and an almost pathetic wish that his daddy had seen the GT40. Characters with smaller roles seem real and rounded.  Miles' wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) is supportive but strong and no-nonsense, with a real generosity of spirit.  And the acting is uniformly good. Bale should get all the awards, but I even loved Damon. There's a quiet moment near the end of the film where he's deeply distressed. He gets into a sports car and revs the engine. The sound of the engine is soothing to him - a car addict.  It's both terrifying and necessary. There aren't any words - it's all on Damon's face.  This is good stuff indeed.

LE MANS 66 has a running time of 152 minutes. The film played Toronto, Telluride and London and was released in the UK and USA this weekend.

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